When Damata Ouedraogo talks to family and friends in her home of Burkina Faso, West Africa, they usually think that she is crazy. They can’t believe that a forty-seven year old, married, mother of four, would be pursuing a college education at her age and stage of life.
“Forty-seven doesn’t mean that I’m dying tomorrow. Unfortunately, in West Africa, people often don’t invest in the education of girls and women. Once you marry, your opportunities tend to disappear. We have a long way to go,” shared Ouedraogo.”
Contrary to the concerns of friends and family from across the globe, Ouedraogo is thriving as a wife, mother, and medical assisting student. So much so, that she has just been awarded the prestigious Norman R. McConney Jr. Award for EOP Student Excellence.
The Norman R. McConney Jr. Award for EOP Student Excellence is awarded in memory of Norman R. McConney Jr., who, along with former Assembly Deputy Speaker Arthur O. Eve, helped to establish the Educational Opportunity Program. The award recognizes the academic and personal achievements of outstanding EOP students across the SUNY system.
Born in Burkina Faso, Ouedraogo completed her studies up to the tenth grade. She considered taking courses in accounting, but ended up marrying young and starting a family. Her husband, a French professor, wanted to continue his education in the United States and relocated to New York City. Damata joined him in 2005. In search of a way to create a source of extra income to help support her family, Ouedraogo began opening her door to women in search of African hair braiding. Over the next two decades, hair braiding would come and go as her primary source of revenue, but it would continue to play a critical role in her life, professionally and personally.
As an immigrant with little education and a basic understanding of the English language, Ouedraogo’s professional opportunities were limited. The now mother of three completed a health aide training program and began caring for patients in their homes across New York City.
“I learned English, my third language, from my patients. They were very helpful and every conversation made a difference,” said Ouedraogo.
By then, Ouedraogo’s husband had been admitted to Binghamton University as a graduate student. Ouedraogo was hit with yet another culture shock as she packed up their family and relocated to Broome County.
“I went from living in a village in Burkina Faso, to living in the busiest city in the world. Now I was still in New York, but back in a village again. My kids were crying out of boredom and begging us to move back to the City. It took me a long time to get acclimated to Binghamton. It was two years before I knew that there was a Weis just down the street from our house! I was driving all the way to Price Chopper before a friend explained that there was a grocery store within walking distance. It was such an adjustment.”
Ouedraogo lamented that information about the area and programs in the community weren’t readily accessible to her. That changed, however, when a Speech Language Pathologist who was coming to her home to work with her youngest son, mentioned a free GED program that was being offered through the Family Enrichment Network of Greater Binghamton.
“When I first moved to the United States, getting my GED was something that I wanted to do, but it was pretty low on my list of priorities. I needed to first learn English and find a way to help support our family. The Family Enrichment Network’s program was perfect for me! It provided everything imaginable. There was transportation to and from the classes, childcare during the classes, and personal tutoring to help me learn each section of the exam. It was so great,” shared Ouedraogo.
It took Ouedraogo three attempts, but after an incredible amount of hard work balancing her roles of mother, wife, African braiding stylist, and student, Damata Ouedraogo earned her GED!
During one of her GED prep classes, a presenter from the grant-funded BC HEARS (Broome County Higher Education Access, Retention and Success) program came to encourage the soon-to-be graduates to consider pursuing a collegiate education. Within days of being notified that she had earned her GED, Ouedraogo contacted Erin Marulli of BC HEARS for support. (The BC HEARS grant ended in 2020. Marulli has since joined SUNY Broome’s professional staff as the Staff Associate for Student Retention.)
“Erin was by my side for every step of the enrollment process. She made it so simple for me. We initially talked about me joining the health information technology program, but I knew that I wouldn’t be comfortable with the program’s online format, so she helped me switch to health studies and medical assisting,” said Ouedraogo.
As Ouedraogo completed the steps to enroll at SUNY Broome, she began to tell her braiding clients that she was thinking about going to college. One client in particular, Kelly Clark, was especially delighted to hear Ouedraogo’s news and offered to help. Clark, the typist for the Educational Opportunity Program at SUNY Broome, knew that Damata would be an ideal candidate for EOP and encouraged her to come to campus and meet with the program’s Director and Counselor.
SUNY Broome’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) provides access, academic support, and financial aid to first-time, full-time students who show promise for succeeding in college, but who may need additional support throughout their studies. Director of EOP, Venessa L. Rodriguez, agreed that Damata was the perfect fit for the program and welcomed her to the incoming class.
“You can’t not be successful in the Educational Opportunity Program if you are ready to work. The program offers so many opportunities for support and so many resources. I felt like I was always in the EOP office asking questions, but Josh and Venessa always had helpful answers,” said Ouedraogo.
Now in her last semester of the medical assisting program, which primarily includes an externship with United Health Services’ Podiatry unit, Ouedraogo is taking some time to reflect on her academic and personal journey. She is genuinely thankful for the support of so many people, but particularly for the support of her husband and her on-campus tutor, Michele L. Robinson of the Perkins Grant/CTE grant.
“It might sound silly, but when I moved to Binghamton, my biggest fear was learning how to drive. It took some time, but getting my driver’s license was liberating in more ways than one. Yes, now I could drive to the store or bring the kids to school easily, but it also showed me that I didn’t need to be afraid of attempting to learn a new skill. So I wasn’t afraid to earn my degree! I recently got a letter from the people at the Norman R. McConney Jr. Award explaining that they are going to have an in-person awards ceremony in the spring. The letter said that I would get two tickets to the event, but I need to ask for more. I want all of my children to witness this moment. I want them all to see that Mommy was resilient and graduated!”